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We’ve all had dreams about flying above a city, zooming past skyscrapers, peering into windows and whooshing past the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. In six cities around the world, that’s not a dream. That’s a reality, courtesy of needle-sharp, pixel-perfect interactive displays at welcome centers created by Stimulant, a San Francisco–based design studio. High above Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, visitors can look out at the city below while interacting with enormous high-definition screens that turn the landscape into a dreamscape in what Stimulant founder and CEO Darren David calls “smart spaces.”

Stimulant’s founders, from left to right: technical director Josh Santangelo, chief executive officer Darren David and design director Nathan Moody.
© Michael Winokur​ 

Instead of merely setting a scene, Stimulant’s interactive screens personalize your view of a cityscape. Visitors use the interaction built into the screens to tap, pinch and zoom into a scene. “[They] become a curator of the experience. They take control, tell their own stories and narrate,” David says. 

For Stimulant, “the hero is the view,” David says. The idea is not simply to mirror what you see from the 60th floor, but also to educate. Using motion-sensing technology, Stimulant’s displays can sense when a visitor approaches and cue icons that spotlight points of interest. Touch an icon and up pops a photo revealing additional information.

In Seattle’s Space Needle, Stimulant goes one better, turning the display into a portal. There, visitors can participate in a waking dream, zooming in and out of the landscape to magically teleport themselves into an entirely different place. Through built-in hotspots on the display, viewers zoom from a bird’s-eye view of the city to the interior of the Seattle Aquarium, and from the aquarium to a fish tank, where they are seemingly swimming with a virtual octopus. Another hotspot links to CenturyLink Field, the home stadium of the Seattle Sounders FC. Visitors can tour the locker room, join
a huddle and see a winning soccer goal from inside the net in a you-are-there experience. This magical combination of delight, superpowers and high tech would delight even Harry Potter. 

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In March 2007, Stimulant opened its doors. Within a matter of months, 25 subprime lenders would file for bankruptcy. Oh, and Apple released the first iPhone. Before the year was out, an entire nation would discover that tapping on screens was cool.

This was really important for Stimulant’s business. “Before the iPhone went mainstream, we had to fight tooth and nail to get people to touch a computer screen,” David explains. He says, laughing, “Two years later, I was at the Consumer Electronics Show walking past a wall of Samsung TVs, and every screen was covered in fingerprints. People wanted in on the action. That’s when it clicked for me,” David says. “People had become touch-curious. They wanted their screens to be interactive.”

For Stimulant, making screens interactive is just one touch point of its business. The studio has been transforming tradeshows, welcome centers, gaming devices, workspaces and public spaces with designs that turn people into performers, musicians, magicians and superheroes. At the same time, its designers make the technology driving these experiences feel invisible. 

“We are working at the intersection of experience design, technology and architecture,” David explains. “Those three disciplines have not yet been fully integrated, which means every project we take on requires something we’ve never done before. Ninety percent of our clients have never executed a digital interactive experience in real space. Because so much of what we do is new, our process has to minimize risk. That means it has to be airtight. We build in lots of time for prototyping. If we are going to fail, we want to fail early and then course-correct.”

We are working at the intersection of experience design, technology and architecture. Those three disciplines have not yet been fully integrated, which means every project we take on requires something we’ve never done before.” —Darren David

Design director and cofounder Nathan Moody calls himself “an expert generalist,” which is an apt description for a field in which these types of projects have never been done. With each new project Stimulant takes on, Moody’s main job is to ask, “How do we create meaning?” To do that, he strives to make sure his developers share the same point of view with the designers who work on the project. “There are three things everyone on the project needs to share,” Moody says. “First is empathy for users. That’s just user interaction 101. Second, empathy for clients. We have to understand what they really want out of a project. And third, we have to understand their brand.”

Moody’s goal is “to build a set of shared brand heuristics, so I can shake my developers or designers awake at three a.m. and they’ll all have the same answer.” With a shared brand vision, Moody says, Stimulant empowers its developers to make creative decisions and its account directors to make strategic decisions, on behalf of clients.

One of Moody’s favorite projects is the work Stimulant has taken on for global pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, in an attempt to drive toward zero-defect manufacturing. To transform office space into smart space, Stimulant is, in Moody’s words, “giving physical space a voice, senses and a point of view.” Equipping a space with sensors enables it to track data, feed it back to the system and optimize the space. “The physical space becomes an active participant, which amplifies people’s ability to get work done.” 

Stimulant’s work—for clients that include Microsoft, Google, Samsung and Intel, as well as three welcome centers around the country—recently caught the eye of Urs P. Gauchat, the dean of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design. Saying, “I like the way you are treating engagement with public spaces as a software problem,” Gauchat invited David to speak to the United Nations on World Habitat Day on the topic “Public Spaces for All.” 

Speaking at the United Nations was a “pinch-yourself moment,” the Stimulant founder says. In a talk that lasted about fifteen minutes, David explained the eight key principles that guide Stimulant’s work. “It took eight years to get to this point, but sitting 20 feet away from Ban Ki-moon, you realize, ‘Maybe we do know something about this stuff.’”

One of Stimulant’s key principles is the belief that the most precious thing it gets from people is their attention. “It’s not about ROI,” according to David. “It’s about ROA—return on attention.” In the attention economy, “the new currency of interaction design is a smile,” David says. “We are here to mesmerize, not monetize.”

David explained to the United Nations that to create new smart spaces successfully, the new interaction schemes would have to create community, enable everyone to participate, ensure experimentation was rewarded and consider a new spatial literacy. In other words, “bringing value back to physical spaces,” David says. “Our core challenge is to invite engagement. When you walk into a space, how do you communicate to someone, ‘This is something you can do here’?” 

The physical space becomes an active participant, which amplifies people’s ability to get work done.” —Nathan Moody

For Stimulant, the answer is interaction schemes so simple that, as David says, you can fall into them. “It’s an extremely flat learning curve. You want anyone to become an expert user right away. Plus, the time you have to tell that story is compressed. We’re not taking people on a five-minute ride; it’s a five-second ride. We’re talking tweet length, not web length.”

As Moody says, “We design interactions to be short, shallow and sexy.” 

In a bravura example, Stimulant partnered with Intel in 2012 to devise an interactive installation called “Connect to Life.” Working on a tradeshow booth at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that included a 170-foot-wide curving projection surface, Stimulant set up six capture stations on the CES floor. These touch-sensitive stations invited people to stick their hands in the sensing device and make a gesture. Immediately, the result would be displayed as a “bio-luminescent life form.” Instead of a simple hand gesture, Stimulant pixelated, colorized, multiplied and animated the result, projecting it on-screen, where it could interact with other forms in a kinetic digital ballet. Of course, the first thing most people did was flip the bird. “Yes, they gave us the finger, but we turned it into the most beautiful middle finger you have ever seen,” David says. Although people may have no self-control, Stimulant ensured the system was self-moderating. 

One of the design fundamentals at Stimulant is “garbage in, beauty out.” The beautiful part of the Intel experience happened between the first and second day. “On day one, people tried it, were pleased with the response and went on their way. On day two, we saw something magical happen. People were returning to try the system again, this time bringing cutout shapes they had made in their hotel rooms.”

In other words, Stimulant had turned people from observers into participants and from participants into creators. Now that’s a beautiful thing. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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